In the summer of 1969, the Beatles were mulling over what to name their 11th studio album. Everest was the early leader, after the particular brand of cigarettes their music engineer smoked. But eventually the Fab Four settled on something a bit more familiar, naming the album after the address of the recording studio they’d spent countless hours in throughout the 1960s.
That album, of course, was Abbey Road — the group’s last recording effort and some say its best — and it propelled the recording studio onto the map of public consciousness. On any given afternoon in North London, a cluster of Beatles fans can be found outside the studio, now a historical landmark, posing for photos or imitating the famous album cover.
A recent Saturday was no exception, as a crowd of fans lined the sidewalk on the otherwise quiet residential street. The excitement level, however, was considerably higher than usual as fans clamored not just to snap photos of the exterior but also to join the selected few who have ever stepped foot inside the building.
To celebrate their 80th year in operation, Abbey Road Studios decided to let in the public for one of only a handful of times in history, offering fans a chance to see the famed Studio 2 and attend a lecture on the history of the studio. (Tours began March 9 and are scheduled throughout the rest of the month — though thanks to the overwhelming response, more dates might be added.) Devotees of all ages, hailing from such places as Australia, Canada, Turkey and Memphis, lined up outside the studio’s gates like children who’ve found the golden ticket and are about to enter Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. A middle-aged couple waited with their arms wrapped around each other in a giddy embrace. A pair of excited American fathers were quizzing their teenage sons on Beatles trivia. Nearly everyone in the crowd of about 100 was snapping pictures and looking at their watches.
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The duo in charge of sharing the history of Abbey Road with the fans, Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan, are the authors of the book Recording the Beatles and have spent years researching the studio. They understood the anticipation outside. Both longtime recording engineers and Beatles fans, they said they remember the wonder they felt the first time they stepped into the legendary building, and that they weren’t surprised people lined up, after traveling from around the world, to get a glimpse of the studio where some of the most famous tracks in history were recorded. After all, Ryan pointed out, while Abbey Road is best known for its Beatles connection, “there is so much more to the story.”
EMI, then known as the Gramophone Company, purchased the residential building at 3 Abbey Road in 1929 with plans to turn it into a major recording operation. By the time the studio officially opened on Nov. 12, 1931, an addition had been built to create a massive studio complex. Many fans found the street view to be shockingly deceiving: the outside of the building appears to be a large London home. “Unless you really explore the building, you don’t really know how much is here,” said Kehew. Studio 1, which is often used for recording orchestras, is more than 4,800 sq. ft. (445 sq m), and while Studio 2 is about half that size, its dimensions are still so large that it wouldn’t have fit into the original building. Studio 3 is a smaller room, more suited for recording solo acts.
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The Beatles weren’t the only famous musicians to walk through the halls of Abbey Road Studios. Prior to the Fab Four, talents such as Edward Elgar, Peter Sellers and Cliff Richards and the Shadows lay down some of their most well-known works at the studio. Post-Beatles, the studio captured recordings by Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Oasis, Florence and the Machine, and Amy Winehouse. Renowned film scores for the Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies were also recorded there.
In addition to pioneering records, Abbey Road was also home to pioneering innovations. During the 1930s, an electronics engineer named Alan Blumlein developed stereo sound at the studio. Though he was trying to improve motion pictures, Blumlein eventually was able to patent stereo records and surround sound. And in the ’60s, engineer Ken Townsend’s experimentation with multitracking led to the creation of an 8-, then 16- and 24-track recording.
After the tour, as they took photos and examined pianos and microphones, more than a few fans said they equated the visit to a religious experience. Kehew and Ryan both said they understood the awe. “If you take away the Beatles, it’s still probably the best-known studio in the world,” Kehew said. “And then with the Beatles on top of it, it’s just untouchable.”